The popular plays of the Franco-Romanian author Eugène Ionesco (1912-1994) protested the dehumanizing effects of modern civilization and depicted the despair of the individual who vainly seeks meaning for his or her existence. He has been called the founder of the Theater of the Absurd.
Eugène lonesco was born on November 26, 1912, in Slatina, Romania, to a French mother and a Romanian father. The following year the family moved to Paris, but soon after he was 12, they returned to Romania. He completed all of his secondary education there and specialized in French at the University of Bucharest. From 1936 to 1938 he taught French in a secondary school in Bucharest. Two years after his marriage in 1936 to Rodica Burileano, he received a grant from the French government to study in France and write a thesis on Sin and Death in French Poetry Since Baudelaire. During the war he worked as a proofreader for a Paris publishing house.
Ionesco became a playwright in a roundabout way. While learning English, he was struck by the emptiness of the clichéd language that kept appearing in his phrasebook, and decided to write a play using nonsensical sentences. The Bald Soprano (1948) was a comic parody of a play, an "antiplay" as he called it, portraying human life as automatism and language as a senseless fragmentation of sentences. Mr. and Mrs. Smith uttered cliches, while the couple visiting them, the Martins, spoke to each other as though they were strangers until they realized that they shared the same home and child. The dialogue amongst the four eventually disintegrates into meaningless sounds. The idea was that a new vision of reality might occur to audiences if habitual patterns of rational thought were overthrown and presented, not just with arguments about the irrationality (or absurdity) of human existence, but with demonstrations of it. The language theme continued in Ionesco's second play, The Lesson (1951), with a professor tutoring a female student in subjects ranging from the logical constructs of mathematics to the less rigorous rules of language. As the language tutoring progresses, the professor became increasingly agitated, and in the end stabbed his student during a discussion of the word "knife." Critics, never at a loss for words, found that the circular structure of these two plays suggested Ionesco's pessimism.
In later plays, Ionesco used multiplying objects as his metaphor for the absurdity of life. In The Chairs] (1952), an elderly couple served as hosts for an audience which would assemble to hear a speaker deliver a message that will save the world. The couple arranged seating for their never-to-arrive guests, and the stage became crowded with chairs. Convinced that their audience had arrived and was seated, the hosts killed themselves, leaving them to hear the speaker who turned out to be a mentally-impaired deaf-mute. In The Victims of Duty (1953), coffee cups multiplied, and in The New Tenant (1957), the protagonist's apartment became progressively filled with furniture. Critics saw the multiplying objects in these works as suggesting the alienation and loss of identity experienced by people in modern society. Ionesco once remarked that "It's not a certain society that seems ridiculous to me, it's mankind," and rather than "theater of the absurd," he preferred the phrase "theater of derision.
Later in the 1950's, Ionesco wrote several plays featuring a modern-day Everyman named Berenger (Ionesco's self-image). The most famous of these and the one that wrote his name large in English-speaking theater was Rhinoceros (1959). In this play, totalitarianism transformed everyone into a savage rhinoceros except Berenger, who thinks about joining them but in the end decided to fight them. The inspiration for the play was Ionesco's reaction to a friend having joined the Nazi party, but its significance was in its denunciation of mindless conformity to a mob mentality. In winning the Jerusalem Prize in 1973 for his entire oeuvre, Rhinoceros was singled out as "one of the great demonstrations against totalitarianism." Berenger also appeared in The Killer (1958), Exit the King (1962), and A Stroll in the Air (1963).
During the next 20 years Ionesco's predominant theme was the subject of death, in such plays as Hunger and Thirst (1964), in which the protagonist (Berenger again) tried to escape death as represented by his wife and child; in The Killing Game (1970) an epidemic has taken away the inhabitants of a village. According to one critic, for Ionesco death represented the threat of nothingness, the "quintessence of the Absurd."
Many of Ionesco's plays had a dream-like quality. People can be transformed into animals or change their identity; they walked in the air or continued to grow after death. Ionesco preferred a series of states of consciousness over traditional plots. These dream-like qualities became more prominent in later plays, such as L'Homme aux Valises (1975) and Journey Among the Dead (1980).
In all, Ionesco wrote 28 plays, some of which have been in constant performance since 1955. He also wrote several volumes of essays, criticism, a novel [the Hermit (1972), made into a film called La Vase, starring the author himself], and he created illustrations for some of his works as well. During the last 10 years of his life he devoted himself to painting and exhibiting his works.
In the beginning, many critics thought Ionesco's work was obscure, but his plays went on to earn international acclaim. He received many honors during his lifetime, and by 1970 had been elected to The Academy Francaise. It was characteristic of the French that Ionesco's death in 1994 was announced by France's Ministry of Culture, rather than by his wife of 58 years or their daughter.
Further Reading on Eugène Ionesco
For his personal memoir, see Eugène Ionesco, Present Past, Past Present (1997, trans. Helen R Lane). A short work in the Twanye's World Authors Series is Deborah B. Gaensbauer's Eugène Ionesco Revisited (1996). See also Nancy Lane, Understanding Eugène Ionesco (1994). An older full-length study of lonesco is Richard N. Coe, Eugène Ionesco (1961). A brief biography is available on-line through the Capital PC User Group, Inc. at http://cpcug.org/user/stefan/ionesco.html (July 1997).